A long awaited but anything but disappointing comeback with a delicate beauty and heartfelt lyrics that are lifted even more by a choice of clever collaborators.
At the beginning of the pandemic, nine months pregnant Anaïs Mitchell made the snap decision to leave New York and head to Vermont – her baby was born just a week later. As if being in lockdown with a child and a newborn in a new state weren’t enough to cope with, Mitchell – the writer behind the Tony Award winning music ‘Hadestown’ – also decided the pandemic offered her the perfect blank slate to make her first album in eight years.
The sparse piano that opens ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ is haunting in its subtle beauty, much like Mitchell’s delicately phrased vocals. “I wanna be someone / Wanna be one in a million / I wanna be the one you want / I wanna be one of a kind / I wanna be once in a lifetime / Wanna be the one you ride beside,” sings Mitchell with an unfailing optimism. Michael Lewis of Bon Iver contributes some gorgeous accompanying saxophone here too, with the tone it sets being very much akin to that of the music Justin Vernon co-creates. Outside of Lewis and Josh Kaufman, who formed Mitchell’s core band when recording, The National’s Aaron Dessner also sometimes stepped in on guitar, while Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman) also contributed on piano.
The short-but-sweet ‘Real World’ sees Mitchell revelling in the simplicity of country life (“I wanna lie in the real grass / Watch the real clouds / Rolling past the pastures / The everlasting feels of a real world”), and ‘Bright Star’ also shows her feeling at peace with her place in life, both figuratively and literally in regards to her new home in what was her grandparent’s house at the family farm. ‘Revenant’ was similarly in part inspired by her grandparents – this time from a box of journals and letters both Mitchell and her grandmother had written – and it sees Mitchell shine at her best lyrically (“In a box under the stairs / Found a lock of a child’s hair / Suddenly I saw you there / Runny-eyed in a wooden chair / Ran outside to hide your face / In the wild Queen Anne’s lace / Green and wide around your waist”).
‘On Your Way (Felix Song)’ has an easy pop-folk melody, fitting for a song all about a hardworking musician finally making it in the mainstream: “You were waiting on a big jet plane / On your way / Flying out of JFK / Saw you then on your way up / How you been, quit my day job / Come a ways since the days when / We made demos in the basement”. ‘Backroads’ is a sweet love letter to fading youth (“Heaven was above your head / Met you at the Watershed / The day thе doors of high school close / God opens the window”).
The raw ‘Little Big Girl’ ended up being tracked live, something that only adds to the desperate vulnerability of the confessional lyrics: “You grow up by mistake / Grow up by surprise / Grow up underneath the gaze of many grown men’s eyes / Try to act your age now, but you don’t know how it’s done / All grown up and somehow still afraid to disappoint someone”. ‘Now You Know’ is a reworking of the same track from Mitchell’s last full length release, and while the differences are small, it does feel imbued with a softer level of intimacy than the 2014 version.
‘The Words’ is a sweet ode to lasting love, one which could come off overly saccharine in another’s hands, but somehow Mitchell makes it work, her voice never quite allowing the sweet to become tooth rottingly so, while the final track – ‘Watershed’ – tells us never to give up (“The tallest summit you look up to / Someday it’s gonna look small to you / There’s a new one coming into view / And you’ll climb that too”) through the surprisingly effective medium of delicate piano and breathy vocals
For Mitchell, it has been liberating to finally write in her own voice again, having spent a long time writing from the perspective of others when penning ‘Hadestown’. “Weirdly, [the songs are] all me. The narrator is me,” she has said. “That’s why it felt right to self-title the album. It felt like after so many years of working on telling other stories, now here are some of mine.” And what fine stories they are to tell. So let’s just hope it doesn’t take another pandemic to allow her to stop, smell the roses and create another perfect snapshot of intimacy and contentment.